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More grandparents find themselves raising their grandchildren

Editor’s Note: A picture accompanying a previous version of this story contained an error in the caption information. The caption should have said that Gloria Castillo’s grandson Hauss was graduating from Sunnyslope High School and heading to Glendale Community College. The story has been updated to reflect that correction.

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WASHINGTON – Gloria Castillo will almost certainly see her grandchildren Sunday for National Grandparents Day – all they have to do to visit is take a few steps down the hall.

Castillo is one of the growing number of grandparents in Arizona, and across the country, who are struggling to raise their grandchildren in what should be their retirement years.

The Census Bureau estimated that there were 67,117 Arizona grandparents responsible for their minor grandchildren in 2010, up from 52,205 in 2000. Nationally, the number went from 2.4 million to 2.7 million in the same period.

Such caregiving arrangements can stretch the already tight finances of grandparents, who may be living on a fixed income or may be living below the poverty level themselves. They say they get little support for the work involved.

But many, like Castillo, say they can’t see doing anything else.

“You take them, you raise them, and make sure they’re not statistics,” the Phoenix resident said of the three teenage grandchildren she has raised for the last 13 years. “There’s no way I can retire.”

Before she gave up her retirement, Castillo, 65, gave up her career as a criminal investigator to take a job as a receptionist, because she needed the more-regular hours to care for her grandkids. Besides the financial cost, she lost most of her friends, who said she was too old to be a mother.

“I lost everything that I owned,” Castillo said. “But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Castillo said the government has no idea what grandparents like her have to go through – emotionally and financially.

“Many grandparents that have children placed in their homes are taken to the brink of bankruptcy,” said Castillo.

Of the 2.7 million grandparents caring for grandchildren nationally in 2010, about 580,000 were below the poverty level, according to the census. In Arizona, 14,651 caregiving grandparents of the total 67,117 were living below the poverty level.

Patty Merk, director of the Arizona Cooperative Extension‘s Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program, said such grandparents face too many “bureaucratic hoops” to get financial support and health care for the grandchildren.

“They (grandparents) are not usually connected with social services,” Merk said.

Even with several organizations offering some type of monetary assistance, getting into those programs can prove to be complicated for parenting grandparents.

“I’d like there to be greater coordination among agencies, to be able to serve grandparents better in terms of accessing resources,” said Merk.

Elaine Williams, a consultant who speaks at events for kinship caregivers, agreed that many grandparents bear a heavy financial burden.

“They have fixed incomes, they are really stretching their dollar and are going into their savings,” she said.

Williams said grandparents sacrifice enormously to take on the role of full-time parent.

“Grandparents are not in a natural phase in life where raising kids is what they do,” Williams said.

Merk agreed, saying the parenting phase is supposed to be over for them.

“They are at an age and state in their lives where they have been planning a different future – retirement, travel,” Merk said.

Castillo took on the job of mother to her then-young grandchildren one December night 13 years ago, when police called to say her youngest daughter and son-in-law were part of a drug bust.

“Then I woke up on the 21st, days before Christmas with three babies and I said, ‘Oh my God, what do I do next?’”

What she did next was try to provide for her grandchildren as if they came from a two-parent family, with sports, music lessons, plays and everything else that comes with kids.

“They all call me ‘Mama,’” Castillo said of her grandchildren, Hauss, now 18, Joshua, 17, and Maiya, 14.

And she hasn’t stopped: When a 19-month-old nephew, Oscar, needed to be cared for recently, she said she was volunteering to take him in almost before she knew what she was saying.

Castillo, now a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Peoria, wishes there was more emotional relief in the form of support groups for grandparents like her, people who have to change their entire lives.

“No one bothered to ask if I needed assistance,” she said.

Castillo joked that she is only tired when she has to pay rent, but described the past 13 years as a wonderful adventure.

“You love your grandkids more than your own children.”